Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Flip a Coin

Everyone goes on about how having a baby is the biggest decision of your life, the biggest commitment you'll ever make and you better think really long and hard about whether or not you want to do it and be absolutely 100% sure. I don't think that's true or at least I don't think it's helpful. Having a kid does change your life to some degree, but not as much as something like The Rapture would. Since I'm a stay-at-home-mom now there is a  bigger day to day change for me than for someone who spends 40+ hours away from that little reminder of how much easier life was when you weren't skidding across the living room on loose train parts. And all day long now, I do boomerang between the extreme joy and extreme fury of being a parent, the mundane and the sublime collide every hour. Yet the question of having a kid, I really don't think that is such a big deal. You can't plan it out. Of mice and men again. Or isn't there that joke about, "How do you make God laugh? Come up with a plan." Have kids or don't. Either way probably won't go the way you expect it to.

It's true having a child has impacted my relationships, my "career", my writing, my band, my travel plans, my friendships, my family life, my free time, my ability to meet people on roof tops and street corners, my drinking habits, my future plans. But still, it's not like you stand there brushing sand off your pillow at night and think--maybe this wasn't such a great idea. It just is your life at that point. And you're happy the way you were before or miserable the way you were before, except this time you clap your hands and stomp your feet when you're the former. I just thought I should maybe tell others, especially others wavering on the whether or not to have kids question, that you can treat the decision lightly. That's how it's been treated throughout most of human history. You can't trouble yourself over making the right decision. It's like where you go to college or if you go at all or if you move to New York or if you stay in rural Iowa or if you become a doctor or if you write trashy romance novels or if you fulfill your life dream to see Graceland...none of these things is really all that big a deal, day to day. You don't question and constantly wonder about having made the right choice (unless you gave away your life savings planning for a Rapture that didn't happen and someone says, "Why are you so upset? It's not the end of the world," and you say, "Exactly, that's the problem").

That crap about "You'll live with this decision for the next 18 years" is just obnoxious. It's true we don't want people having kids who aren't capable of taking care of them, but I have never seen any correlation between getting all the ducks in a row before having one and willingness to spend evenings lining plastic ducks along the edge of the bath tub on the other. If having kids is a big deal, it's because people (like me) try to carry on certain aspects of their lives as if they didn't have kids. And even then the kid-factor is simply a big deal that obscures something else that would have been the big deal of the moment. There is almost always something. Most of us can't think in front of tigers, and don't have much opportunity. Until then we'll harnass the anxiety from the fight or flight we didn't have to fight or fly from, and spread it out all over the place, to sippy cups, deadlines, bedspreads, something mildly insensitive someone we just met might have said.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Watcher of the Skies

I’m at the Hudson Street library. They have the most fantastic playroom here where Wally is pretty self-sufficient now and I can actually kind of write a sentence every now and then. The librarian just told me I have The Idle Parent overdue (kind of fitting). I came across it by chance at the green library a few weeks ago and have been holding on to it to read again. It is quite possibly the single best book on childrearing I’ve ever gotten my hands on. The main message is to arrange your life so you can spend as much time with your kids as possible but to also leave them to their own devices much of the time, staying in the background, modeling happy behavior and creating an atmosphere of music and merriment. You should be nearby, enjoying life together, but not on call to meet their every need the second they make you aware of it. They need lots of time on their own or with other kids, away from store-bought toys and structured activities. Sort of a common theme these days, but the idea that lots of inventiveness and fun comes out of boredom. You have to give kids a chance to be bored so they can learn to be creative, or they’ll grow up needing constant input and drive you nuts with their demands. (The author, a rather industrious brit named Tom Hodgkinson, is also a big advocate of drinking while parenting. “Tipsy parents have happier kids” or some such. I’ll get the exact quote when I get home later and dig up that overdue book.)

I was telling the librarian how much I liked the book and he just kind of gave me a blank look. I said, "You know how everything is so structured these days with all these classes for 2-year-olds?" Meanwhile I was thinking "Isn’t great that here in the library the kids can just play and read a page or two of a book every now and then and figure out how to take turns on the slide?" He looked anxious. I found out why a few minutes later. Of course it could also be that he shudders at the thought of caregivers who sit idly by while kids color in encyclopedias and drop half-eaten lollipops into the DVD returns bin.

After I put down our backpacks Wally ran off to the fire trucks and I headed to the nature section. Just as I started to sink into that great wild Cortez-staring-at-the-Pacific* moment of being about to pour over all those wonderful books, I sensed too much activity behind me. The heavy calm air of the library was being disrupted, the barometric pressure starting to drop. Nannies and babies came streaming in tripping over rattles and sippy cups. It was the laptime brigade. Chairs were being pulled in every direction, slowly at first then with the New York frenzy of demand far exceeding a supply. A dark foreboding came over me: any minute now we’d all be touching our heads, shoulders, knees and toes an ungodly number of times.

I was right--it was a massive storytime takeover. At 3 Wally was the oldest kid in the room and there was of course no way I could get him to sit with the other participants, especially when he came in expecting to play freely. My stomach sort of dropped when the librarian started going around asking everyone’s name. Each nanny cheerfully bounced the baby in question and said, “Jacqueline” or “Taylor” or “Cole” then everyone would chime back “Hi, Cole” back in a big sing-songy voice sure to terrify the little creature who could not have expected a roomful of 60+ strangers to greet him in unison like he was at an AA meeting.

By the time the librarian got to Wally he had dashed off across the room to the play kitchen, so all was well. No question asked; no answer given. But I had to ask myself what I was even afraid of. That someone would say, “You're too old. This is for 0-18 months. Get out of here and take your choking hazard 3+ toys and snacks with you”? Or just the feeling that he is delayed so it’s almost like this is better suited for him than something for preschoolers would be? He did join in for bits and pieces of various songs. Mommies on the bus saying “Shush, shush, shush.” He gets a huge kick out of that line. "You can say “shush” all you want," I imagine him laughing deviously to himself. "No one is ever gonna hear you."

Lately I’ve noticed that Wally is often one of the oldest kids wherever we go in the morning. Plus most of the other kids are accompanied by a nanny. It is Manhattan after all. How can people afford to stay home? Although if you're paying a full-time nanny under the table and getting paid over--and the issue is only financial--couldn't you just trade places? If you wanted to, I mean. Can you afford to have a nanny if you can't afford to stay home? I don't know. Maybe. I hope this doesn't sound rude. Manhattan isn't really a mom's scene, especially for "school age" kids. I guess even in New York, even when my dad wore my yellow pajama bottoms to play pool at Westside Tavern and no one batted an eye, these days Wally and I make an odd pair. Once recently I felt so left out at the playground. It just seemed like everyone knew each other as part of some toddling playgroup and it's not like I care, usually, but it was getting to me. The mingling and the new people and the place-lessness, like you can't find anywhere to stand, or you have way too many knees and toes. Like you just started a new job and it's someone random sales guy's going-away party and anywhere you're standing is the wrong place. Plus you know that everyone who talks  to you is looking around for someone more important. At that moment in the playground I was so tired from the whole scene that I just lay down on my back finally and looked up at the sky. Wally lay down beside me. It struck me as bizarre and amazing that the sky is always there for you (except on these endlessly cloudy days). That you can always just lie on your back and look up at it and it's always so peaceful and reassuring. But the weird thing too is that you're not really looking at anything, are you?

At the library this morning an entire preschool showed up on a field trip partway through the story time, and then Wally blended right in. But it shouldn’t have mattered. He was having fun, oldest or youngest or in between, who cares? Why is there such a sadness for me about a kid being “too old for that” or trying to squeeze himself into a costume from last year or into a playhouse meant for babies? I still haven’t gotten over hearing one five-year-old say to another at a Carroll Garden playground last fall, “Why are you playing with that? (A light-up dollhouse type thing.) That’s for a 2-year-old.” I guess it just hits a nerve for someone who always wanted to stop time, starting when I was the same age as those kids. I still feel a bit bruised when the universe reminds me on a daily basis “You’re not a kid anymore.” Why can’t I be?

A little while later Wally came running over from the slide nearly in tears. His new thing is to “go together” but not every kid wants to do that. A girl told him no and pushed him away. Crestfallen is such a funny word, but that's what he was. He looked at me and said, simply, “I wanna go home.” That's a recent thing, too. Getting his feelings hurt and wanting to go home. I guess it makes sense, to seek shelter and protection. We found a traffic jam puzzle, though, and he was fine, happily "redirected". Last year at this time a disagreement would have led straight into a meltdown. Or make that a pindown (of the other kid). What's weird is Wally wouldn't have related enough to care about getting his feelings hurt. And certainly would never have come running over to me for any reason. 

Feeling so bad that you want to go home is a natural reaction, but a bit extreme. Wally could really use some of those extra sensory inhibitors on the inside. The same kid who requests others to "bonk him on the head again" tears up when someone tells him to "get away". "Sticks and stones"** is such a dumb expression. It'd be nice if it were true, if we could all be like Eleanor Roosevelt withholding consent from feeling inferior, but it sure goes against nature for some of us. For Wally now it's almost the complete opposite. 

The rain let up on the way home. Still it felt great to be back inside. Cozy and warm on such a dark day. Wally likes to ask now, "This is our house?"  and answer himself, "Yes, this is our house." Funny that he can go home, but in a way I feel like I can't. We all want to run home when we get pushed off the slide, but after a certain point, of course, you can't. Thomas Wolfe. What is the rest of that line? It is about going back home to your family, your childhood, your "dreams of glory and of fame".*** That's what we can't go back to. But the desire to do so still feels like it's at the root of something I need to do. 

My dad sometimes mentions this brilliant doctor at the V.A. who went back to retire in a little town in Texas. Texas, can you believe it? Texas? No one ever goes there on purpose, do they? (No matter how great Austin might be.) But that's where the guy was from and even if he made it in the medical capital of the world, one day he had to go back. To that little one-horse town with one bookstore in West Texas. Scarily, one bookstore may not be a defining feature of a small-town much longer. With even Barnes & Noble stores closing shop, Borders going under and the New York Public Library facing a $40 million cut, where will those of us go who grew up with libraries as temples, who want to be in silent stacks on that peak in Darien, who can sometimes only do it when first looking into Chapman's Homer, only move forward by looking into the past, only think more clearly and live more purposefully when we follow my mother's laconic injunction when I'm not getting exactly where I need to be: "Read more." She's a librarian too, she was the librarian in our elementary school. She loses herself in books, literally, like an addict. She's always having to hold herself back from reading more. (Though lately I think she does check email pretty often, and even Facebook. The urgency of now catches up to everyone.)  

I can still hear her reading Blueberries for Sal or George and Martha, to us at home or to a class in school, holding the book facing out so we could all see the pictures. The pictures didn't blink, didn't move or light up. In the class, we couldn't even see them all that well. It was the storyteller's voice that carried the story, like it had for thousands of years, like it did 6,000 years ago along the banks of the Euphrates when storytellers dreamed they saw animals in the night sky. 

A mom's voice so instantly conjures up childhood. Hearing it feels like going home; how could it be otherwise? It's the first voice you ever hear (unless it's blocked out by prenatal music piped in to "facilitate bonding in the womb"). If you're lucky, when you hear it you'll know you're safe at home with your cloth and wire mother, the one who will read you stories, take you out after dinner to show you fields of fireflies, and guide you to a place where you can one day feel safe enough to leave her. It's a big job, being that cloth and wire mother. It's too bad it's so much of a business these days; it doesn't seem like we are learning a whole lot from current trends in parenting. We'd be better off looking into the past. That doesn't mean, of course, that we can go back there. Yet a crazy mythical nightmare hallucinating Arkansas hope of return keeps me thinking I will. And hurtling me back into that receding future. 

*John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer [also post title, Darien ref.]

**Idiom: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"

***Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again  "You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame...back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." 

Allen Ginsberg, Howl "who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war"

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us"

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Return to Gowanus

Heading back there now, to hopefully finish up the final vocal tracks for The End of May EP we recorded so long ago. Oddly nervous. Thinking of the opening lines of Elizabeth Bishop's Santarem: "Of course I may be remembering it all wrong/after, after---how many years?"

Friday, May 6, 2011

Of Mice and Little Boys

Wednesday May 4, 8 a.m.

I had wanted to meet Kristin and her daughter Magnolia in the botanical garden today, to let the kids run around in the fairy houses which I think will only be there for a little while longer. But instead we're here waiting for a maintenance man to fix the grate under the heater which Wally must have yanked off. We've had so many mice lately, and that's supposedly the entryway. I don't know why I didn't think to get it fixed until now.

For a month or so I'd been keeping the mice at bay with peppermint oil. It works pretty well, but it's $30 a bottle. I got tired of the expense and also just the routine sprinkling it around every night. It started to feel like a hassle, to fall into that "one more thing" category. So I dropped off, and presently the mice returned. At night I can hear them stirring around.

In December my parents gave us a humane mouse trap which had worked like a charm for them. I promptly wrapped it in a plastic bag and tucked it away in the closet. It kind of made me nervous. Just didn't want to deal with the mice up close and personal like that. Plus I'm a frequent subscriber to the theory that if you ignore a problem, it will go away. It has a high failure rate. The mice started getting bolder: I found one in the sink; another stared at me from behind the coffee machine. They were like NYC squirrels or visitors from Brazil--comfortable to the point where it's almost an affront. It's like -- shouldn't you be scurrying off by now? Something had to be done.

So a few weeks ago I squeamishly unpacked the trap and set it up with a few Cheerios before I went to bed, and timidly checked in the morning, relieved to see the trap was closed, but empty. Alex must have knocked against it with his foot. I was kind of pleased that I could throw my hands up in a passive "I tried". I set it up again that night, hoping for a similar result. I'd given up even checking when one morning last week Wally came into the kitchen squealing with joy when he found a little brown mouse twitching away in the trap. It did look awfully cute with those giant eyes. Wally kept saying, "Want to hug him. Want to pet him," and crouching down to eye level with those enormous eyes. I told him it was best not to touch him; maybe sing him a song instead. He sang ABC.

It was all going fine and it was a beautiful morning for a jaunt in the yard but when I told Wally what we were about to do (let the mouse go), he burst into tears. Catch a mouse and let him go just like that? I hadn't stopped to think that he might get attached so quickly. But of course finding your own cute little pet mouse in the morning was like me coming downstairs to find a bike on my 10th birthday.  The best thing in the world. And what if after 2 minutes of me oohing and ahhing my mom had said, "Okay, now let's go give it back." Terrible. 

Wally howled in the elevator, sobbed as we made our way past the recycling bins, pounded his fists into me when we got outside and I bent down to open the trap. I tried to explain that the mouse needed to find his mom and dad. That he needed to find his cousins and friends little bed and little bottle of milk. When the mouse ran out of the trap into the bushes there was a brief moment of hope. The mouse was simply dashing off to hide which meant ...Wally could seek! This was familiar territory. Off he went, face blotchy red but starting to perk up. Only all the searching,  all the "Come out, come outs wherever you are" were in vain. Wally started to cry again when I told him we had to go back up, without his not with as much force as before. And he did say, to himself kind of, in a quiet sing-songy voice, "He has to find his mommy and daddy and sisters and brothers and cousins."

The next few times we went down to the yard to play, Wally looked for the "brown mouse", maybe hoping it was one of those marathon games of hide and seek and that the mouse was still tucked away behind a tree, laughing to himself about what a brilliant spot he'd happened upon. But the search started sounded more deliberately imaginary, like the brown mouse was a storybook character whose likeness Wally could conjure up at any time and just as easily let fall away into the ether.


We caught 7 more mice before I finally thought to have the man fix the grate. I had started to feel rustic and self-sufficient, like I could take care of the issue myself. (Next up I'd be chopping my own firewood.) But it was clear that if you build it, they will come. And keep coming. Unless you patch up the hole where they are coming in. During that week Wally got used to the routine and came to enjoy it. As soon as he found the shaky little creature in the morning he would say, "We gotta bring him outside. He's gotta find his mommy. And daddy. And Jules." (That's his therapist.) It came to be a ritual. I'd bring down a mug of coffee and something for us to eat, Wally might bring his wooden frog on a string. He loved to watch that moment of the mouse scampering away and made sure I dumped the remaining Cheerios out so there would be enough food for lunch. But then he'd clatter away with the toy frog trailing behind him, up to the fence and back.

Thursday May 5, 3:30 pm
During that mouse week, I started changing how I watered the plants. I stopped seeing it as a chore. (Oh, God, you're kidding. I still have the dishes and the bills and the laundry and the plants? Do I ever get to sit down? Which is a wild exxageration as I sit all the time and have been for the past hour and have even been known to lie down on the playground enjoying the sun with my neighbor Amy while another neighbor says, "Don't you think you should keep a closer eye on your kids?" Meanwhile we are 20 FEET AWAY from them in an enclosed toddler play area and for two minutes I've taken a break from studying their every move with the rapt attention of a child analyst.) Anyway I started to just be "mindful" about watering the plants, to appreciate whatever little contact with nature I'm lucky enough to have. I realized I had envied people who have real-life gardens, who can go out in the evening with a glass of wine and water their plants and lie around reading Billy Collins (having a garden automatically guarantees leisurely evenings filled with poetry and wine). Now I'm grateful for any contact with the natural world I have.

As I was filling up the watering can last night I told Alex about how well Wally had adjusted to the freeing-of-the-mice and how much he'd learned. I was parroting stuff from Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods about how hands-on contact with the natural world teaches so much more than any kind of traditional classroom learning could.

"So what did he learn?" Alex asked, not in a challenging way, just in a curious one which surprised me, a request for elaboration being a rare gesture for the male species. I'm more used to a grunt and nod acompanied by the face that clearly means, "Now can I be excused to go watch Ultimate Fighter?"

What did he learn? I hesitated. Wally didn't learn about the kind of mouse, its eating habits (other than Cheerios), its social structure, its habitat. He didn't even learn that there are humane ways to rid yourself of mice. I don't think he would have looked at the situation that way. He knew only that the mouse was in our house for some reason that he didn't question, that we caught him for some reason that he also didn't question, and that for the mouse's good we had to set him free.

Alex was still waiting for an answer. Ultimate Fighter could wait.

Well for starters, he learned that you might want to hug something but it might not want to hug you back, in fact it might want to bite you -- good to know for adventure hikes (or walks around NY). He learned that mice are tiny and fragile (Robert Browning's "small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast") and that we should treat them gently. That you can search and search but you might not find what you're looking for. And most importantly, that just because you love something, doesn't mean you get to keep it.

Friday May 6, 12 a.m.
Many creatures are stirring on the streets below, but for now at least, I don't hear any mice. Wally checked the trap despondently this morning, the routine disrupted. "No mouse." Sometimes in the afternoon during the mouse week he'd say, "We cannot catch mousey" because I would say, "Let's go check the trap" as a way to get him to come inside for a nap even though I knew it'd likely be empty. But today he seemed to intuit that it wasn't that we couldn't catch the mouse, but that there isn't one to catch. 

It had been okay to say goodbye when the next day there'd be another (in his mind the same?) little brown mouse. But Wally adjusted the empty trap equally as well. He had learned that when it comes to a wild animal, that proverb about when you love something, set it free might end there. Don't wait for it to come back, or to finally give up its hiding spot. Simply, set it free.

I remember when our dog Sky was missing for two days. I was a mess, putting up signs, approaching dog-owners while tearily holding up pictures, searching every inch of the park, every scrap yard, calling shelters (the ticking clock of knowing they euthanize dogs within a few days), shouting her name into the void. At night we put her bed in the window -- something we read you should do, so the dog will smell it and find their way home. We slept in the livingroom so we'd hear her. In between searching, in my braver moments, I comforted myself by thinking maybe Sky simply could not be confined. She had heard the call of the wild and went in search of it.

And yet somehow we found her, and I still pinch myself that we did. A Russian couple called us and led us up a windy, woodsy path along the southwest corner of Prospect Park. Sky was huddling in the underbrush, scared and shaky but jumping all over us for joy when we arrived. Then again that wasn't all that different from her everyday greeting. Still, it was such a joyous day. A tortuous game of hide and seek with the most incredible ending. The way Sky ran--and writing this makes me think of the post about how it sounds apocryphal but Wally really did hold his head up from Day 1--but Sky just ran faster than almost any dog on the planet except maybe a star greyhound at the top of his game. So we figured a minute or two of running away from that Deli where I'd tied her up and she was already so far away from home she couldn't find her way back. 

We never figured out how she got out of her harness, though getting out of devices meant to restrain clearly runs in the family. But by some miracle of fortune we got her back, and then four years later willingly gave her up. I still daydream about bringing her back to live with us. But Alex tells me that wouldn't make her life better, that it would only serve us. She lives with four dogs now and the owners (who let her sleep on the bed, just like we used to) just happen to own a doggy daycare and doggy agility course. Plus she's never alone; with us she was alone all the time (no intentional reference to the Bush song). And she has tons of space. How could you keep a dog like that in an apartment? Take them on tiny, looping walks around city streets? It's not a humane thing to do. A dog like that who whenever she could ran as fast as caninely possible and in her years made hundreds of park-goers stop and stare. She was just so graceful. There was just so much space between her feet and the ground. She was like some kind of mythical creature, destined to live up to her name.

Maybe the lesson of setting something free is written into Wally's primal memory. Sky was his first real companion. I will never get over that moment she lay down underneath his bassinet when we arrived home from the hospital. It wasn't without sadness. She moped and dragged herself around for at least two weeks. She did not want to give up her role as the designated baby, but she didn't hesitate to assume the role as Wally's protector. I still don't understand how a creature like that exists anywhere, let alone happily living among us. A creature that really would trade its life for yours in a heartbeat. And they all do that. Like I said in my dog book, any old schoolyard mutt would fight pretty much to the death for its owner. How could I not sacrifice the joy of Sky company so that she can live a happy, free dog's life?

I wrapped the mouse trap back up in the plastic bag and tucked it away in the closet. I'm so tired. It feels like there have been so many different lifetimes, in just a few years. Wally's three and, like he says about the plants that he helps water, "growing so big". What did he learn from releasing the mice? Maybe not as much as I did.